Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Life Cycle of the Director

One of the first things I do after watching a movie is to visit its Wikipedia page. I quickly scan through the pages of prominent cast members I'm unfamiliar with, and the major creative contributors, especially the director. Going through my recent binge of '70s movies this happened a lot, as I was unfamiliar with a lot of names like Don Siegel and John Guillermin. And it meant that I got to look where a lot of once prominent directors ended up ten, twenty, or thirty years after their biggest successes.

Quentin Tarantino has famously declared that great directors are doomed to go into decline after making ten films. This absolutely doesn't hold true for all great directors, but long term consistency seems to be rare. I've run across so many directors who were only successful for a brief period, or only managed to make one or two notable films before disappearing into obscurity. It seems like a very common career trajectory for a Hollywood director is to make a handful of critically acclaimed films at the beginning of their career, and then spend the next decade or three directing disposable middlebrow fare. Look at Lasse Hallstrom and William Friedkin's filmographies. There are very few auteurs who seem to stay auteurs.

At the same time, this means that a lot of the mediocre throwaway films we see every year are made by directors of considerable talent and artistry who simply aren't in a position to be making the kinds of films that they want to make. Or in many cases, the filmmaking culture and support system they had in for earlier hits is no longer in place. Sure, some of the greats self-destructed on their own - see Sam Peckinpah's substance abuse issues - but others saw their fortunes greatly influenced by circumstance. In some cases, I'm convinced that a director's big success came from being at the right place at the right time, and working with the right people, because they never hit the same level of quality in subsequent films. It's made me a lot more skeptical about who should be counted as a great director.

As I've continued writing my "Great Directors" posts, and started running low on the more obvious names, I've started thinking about this more and more. Did Charles Laughton really contribute more to film for making the "Night of the Hunter," his only directing credit, than a dependable career director like Robert Stevenson, who directed the bulk of Disney's live action fantasy films of the 1960s and 1970s, including "Mary Poppins"? Would Jean Vigo still be so highly regarded if he hadn't died so young and made more than just one film and three shorts? What if he'd gone off to Hollywood like Rene Clair or Victor Sjostrom did, and made a string of commercial pictures? And have we forgiven M. Night Shyamalan yet for "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth"?

And I wonder about Patty Jenkins, who waited over ten years between "Monster" and "Wonder Woman" because she simply never found the right project to sign on for, and was daunted by expectations. Like so many others, she directed a few television episodes in the interim and had some notable false starts. What kinds of movies would she have made during that time if everything had gone right for her? And I wonder about David Fincher, who after having several promising projects shut down at HBO, has elected to direct the "World War Z" sequel as his follow-up to "Gone Girl." And I wonder about all those promising newcomers that arrive in Hollywood year after year. So much more determines the course of a director's career these days than their talent.

The age of the auteur is long gone, and sometimes I think that Quentin Tarantino may be one of the last big name directors who actually could get everything they want to make out there on their own terms. For most directors this has never been an option. And honestly, after "The Hateful 8," I don't know how true that is for Tarantino anymore either.

My next "Great Directors" post should be up in a couple of days. It'll be De Palma or Peckinpah. Haven't decided yet.


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